Those metrics aren’t easily measured, but a year ago, Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn and Dan Hanner attempted to flesh out those traits into five quantifiable figures: recruiting for the future; recruiting for future impact; talent retention; in-season development; and future development. Using that statistical quintet as a guide, these five teams — all but one unranked as the season opens — could be ready to break out in 2017.
Houston: Coach Kelvin Sampson is one of the nation’s best at securing players who will make an immediate impact, as he proved in 2016 with transfers Damyean Dotson and Ronnie Johnson. But Sampson is equally talented as refining the skills of his squad, which ranked within Hoop-Math.com’s top 100 for effective field goal percentage (and second-best in the American Athletic Conference). Per the chart, only 14 other high major coaches developed their returning players better — meaning they exceeded projected performances — and the Cougars are not only deep (37 percent of their minutes was allocated to the bench in 2016), they are experienced. Rob Gray, a 6-foot-2 guard, made 48 percent of his twos last season — significant because his usage rate by far led the team — and took more than a third of Houston’s shots. Add Dotson, uber-athletic Danrad “Chicken” Knowles and Galen Robinson, one of the conference’s best freshmen, and Houston should be an AAC contender.
Creighton: The Big East school is slowly becoming a transfer powerhouse. From 2010 -14, otherwise known as the Doug McDermott years, only two transfers — Gregory Echenique and Grant Gibbs — came to Creighton from other Division I schools. (Doug Brooks was a junior college transfer.) In the past three years, five players have transferred and suited up for Greg McDermott’s squad. Eight other D-I coaches are better than the Bluejays coach at retaining talent and working with newcomers to find a fit within the team’s strategy. Mo Watson might be the best point guard in the Big East, but when he arrived from Boston University, the 5-10 guard was content to score from the perimeter, attempting 174 free throws in two seasons; during his junior season (2016), more than 40 percent of Watson’s shots in the halfcourt came at the rim and he drew 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes (161 free throws). Cole Huff, a wing from Nevada, underwent a similar development — he significantly tightened his handle and became one of the team’s better defenders — and if the No. 22 Bluejays are going to challenge Villanova or Xavier, Marcus Foster has to also improve. McDermott may just be the transfer whisperer.
Memphis: Memphis, another AAC school, is included on this list because Tubby Smith is now its coach. It typically takes Smith three seasons to get his team prepped for a postseason appearance, but none of his past stops included a player like Dedric Lawson, the AAC’s preseason player of the year. Combined with Smith’s prescient tutelage — the only Big 12 coaches ranked higher than Smith on SI’s chart were Scott Drew, Bill Self and Bob Huggins — and Lawson, a sophomore who many felt had a disappointing first season, Memphis could very well shatter any expectations. The 6-9 wing attempted a whopping 365 two-point field goals in 2016, and if he either cuts down or improves upon his shooting (he only made a quarter of his twos that were away from the rim), Lawson is set for a massive sophomore leap.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers are massively underrated. The team lost just one player who used more than 50 percent of the team’s minutes (James Robinson), and return 71 percent of its minutes and nearly 80 percent of its scoring — highlighted by Jamel Artis, Michael Young and Sheldon Jeter. So why has the ACC team been continually overlooked this preseason? Because Jamie Dixon is no longer head coach; Kevin Stallings moved on from Vanderbilt, and in the light of how both coaches develop their talent over multiple seasons, Stallings might be an upgrade.
Stallings has a higher rating for his players improving over the course of a season, which bodes well for a senior-laden team coming off an NCAA tournament appearance. Yes, the ACC is stacked, but Pitt should not be overlooked. The Panther with potentially the most significant upside? Cameron Johnson, a 6-7 sophomore wing with an efficient perimeter stroke (40 percent from deep in ACC play).
Stanford: Like Pitt, the Cardinal is also overlooked, albeit in a conference that is not as deep as the ACC. Losing Roscoe Allen was a blow, but the team returns nearly three-quarters of its minutes. Based on minutes continuity, a new metric introduced by Ken Pomeroy that measures the percentage of team minutes played by the same players from season to season, Stanford should be near the top of the Pac-12. Add head coach Jerod Haase, whose UAB teams were among the stingiest in conference play and combined a suffocating and athletic man defense with a propensity for not fouling and chasing teams off the three-point line, and the Cardinal will finish much higher than their projected tenth.